The perversions of M.

Foucault by Roger Kimball - The New Criterion

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MARCH 1993

The perversions of M. Foucault
by Roger Kimball On The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller.

Since it is difficult, or rather impossible, to represent a man’s life as entirely spotless and free from blame, we should use the best chapters in it to build up the most complete picture and regard this as the true likeness. Any errors or crimes, on the other hand, which may tarnish a man’s career and may have been committed out of passion or political necessity, we should regard rather as a lapse from a particular virtue than as the products of some innate vice. We must not dwell on them too emphatically in our history, but should rather show indulgence to human nature for its inability to produce a character which is absolutely good and uncompromisingly dedicated to virtue. —Plutarch, in the life of Cimon

By the author
Introduction: the age of discussion by Roger Kimball
On Walter Bagehot and the progress of civilization.

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On the life, work, and mindset of Hilton Kramer.

I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. —Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge

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(Nor is the reference to the Passion adventitious: Miller makes the connection explicit.newcriterion. To be sure. underneath it all. is “really” a scene of unspeakable domination and subjugation. Miller’s opinion. Foucault resembled his more talented rival and fellow left-wing activist. of prisons. including such well-known figures as the historian Paul Veyne. Foucault by Roger Kimball . http://www. of society at large—have been little more than alibis for extending state power. a prolific cultural journalist who teaches at the New School for Social Research. he remains an unlikely candidate for canonization. that efforts at enlightened reform—of asylums. Yet he had eminent and devoted cheerleaders. at least. He came bearing the bad news in bad prose that every institution.” Foucault asked in Surveiller et punir (English translation: Discipline and Punish. Foucault’s focus was Power. self-sacrificing virtue that it bears comparison with the Passion of Jesus Christ. in Mr. But most critics—including such luminaries as Alexander Nehamas. Miller’s performance. and Alasdair MacIntyre— have been falling over themselves to express their admiration and “gratitude” for Mr. has long been a darling of the same super-chic academic crowd that fell for deconstruction.. But the very title of this new biography—The Passion of Michel Foucault[1]—puts readers on notice that. alas. in American universities. and other aging French imports.” Be that as it may. Jacques Derrida. no matter how benign it seems. He never quite managed it—he never wrote anything as original or philosophically significant as Being and Nothingness. which all resemble prisons?” Such “interrogations” were a terrific hit in the graduate seminar. Miller. “that prisons resemble factories. never had the public authority that Sartre. &c. that human relationships are. Jean-Paul Sartre. his subject presents us with a life of such exemplary.429 Follow @newcriterion Webcasts Page 2 of 15 . But where the deconstructionists specialize in the fruity idea that language refers only to itself (il n’y a pas de hors texte. “Is it surprising. is not alone in his estimation. And Miller may well be right in claiming that by the time of his death Foucault was “perhaps the single most famous intellectual in the world”—famous. who died of AIDS in June 1984 at the age of fifty-seven.The perversions of M. The Armory Show at 100 by James Panero 5. The digital challenge. anyway. there have been a few dissenting voices. whose stunning career Foucault did everything he could to emulate.cfm/The-perversions-of-M--Foucault-4714 by Daniel Hoffman 2. that truth itself is merely a coefficient of coercion. of course. I: Loss & gain. 1977). mostly from academic homosexual activists who feel that Mr. Richard Rorty. schools. beginning with a stint in the French Communist Party in the early 1950s. his colleague at the Collège de or the fate of the book by Anthony Daniels 4. hospitals. barracks.) The eager reception of The Passion of Michel Foucault suggests that Mr.The New Criterion 1/23/13 12:16 AM Foucault. deadly struggles for mastery. In all this. Miller was insufficiently reverential. Higher ed: an obituary view more > The New Criterion Like 1. enjoyed in the postwar years. in Derrida’s now-famous phrase). who declared Foucault “the most important event in the thought of our century. &c. where hermetic arguments about sex and power are pursued with risible fecklessness by the hirsute and untidy. The culture of the copy by James Panero 3.

Miller claims that Foucault’s penchant for sadomasochistic sex was itself an indication of admirable ethical adventurousness. Miller describes him as a “new type of intellectual. Such attitudes. He several times attempted—and more often threatened—suicide. Foucault was “almost universally detested. 2013 04:05 PM RSS feeds Page 3 of 15 .” Miller describes Foucault as “one of the representative men—and outstanding thinkers—of the twentieth century. for instance. presented at the conference hosted by The New Criterion and the Social Affairs Unit. 2013 03:03 PM The police state.” since. Those planning suicide.”) Foucault came to enjoy imagining “suicide festivals” or “orgies” in which sex and death would mingle in the ultimate anonymous encounter. sarcastic. after all. "The Pillars of Liberty: Sustaining the Building Blocks of a Free Society. as Miller notes. Josiah Bunting III's paper. Foucault felt that Sade “had not gone far enough. While this might be questionable advice for a biographer. arrogance and mystification were two hallmarks of Foucault’s character and writing. Not that anyone familiar with the outlines of Foucault’s life is likely to think him an angel. carry an implied criticism: we excuse only what requires exculpation. Mr. Foucault by Roger Kimball . 2013 10:47 PM The next target: talk radio by Roger Kimball Jan 20. in fact. Note well: Miller does not attempt to excuse or condone or tolerate Foucault’s vices.” But this is at best disingenuous. Allegiance. but also aloof. (Though.newcriterion. who had long been one of his prime intellectual and moral heroes. and celebration of Foucault and all he stood for is at the top of Miller’s agenda in this book.[2] Eribon notes that at school. Selfdestruction." The Pillars of Liberty: "Marshall's Men: American High Command in the Second World War" by Gen. he followed the lead of the Marquis de Sade.The perversions of M. could look “for partners without names. unaccountably. claim that they were the human. moreover. True. in his http://www." The Pillars of Liberty: "Patriotism. In this. as in so much else. for a hagiographer it would seem to be indispensable.The New Criterion 1/23/13 12:16 AM What is novel about that performance is Miller’s neglect of Plutarch’s admonition. he does not. presented at the conference hosted by The New Criterion and the Social Affairs Unit. But as the French journalist Didier Eribon has shown in an earlier biography (and as Miller unwittingly shows in his own).” But his great innovation in this book is to seize what was most vicious and perverted about Foucault— his addiction to sadomasochistic sexual practices—and to glorify it as a courageous new form of virtue—a specifically philosophical virtue. for occasions to die liberated from every identity. "The Pillars of Liberty: Sustaining the Building Blocks of a Free Society. he continued to see the body as “strongly organic. Josiah Bunting III Gen. presented at the conference hosted by The New Criterion and the Social Affairs Unit. and cruel. where Goya’s horrific etchings of the victims of war decorated his walls. Indeed. quoted above. and the Nation State" by Andrew Roberts Andrew Roberts's paper. "The Pillars of Liberty: Sustaining the Building Blocks of a Free Society." Weblog Ayn Rand and the criminalization of everyday life by Roger Kimball Jan 20. he mused.” “modest and without mystifying pretense. and Miller is right to underscore Foucault’s fascination with death. coming soon to a neighborhood near you by Roger Kimball Jan 18. we tolerate only what makes demands upon our patience or broad-mindedness. was another of Foucault’s obsessions.” Schoolmates remember him as brilliant.cfm/The-perversions-of-M--Foucault-4714 The Pillars of Liberty: "The Age of Discussion" by Roger Kimball Roger Kimball's paper. that one ought to concentrate on “the best chapters” of a life and cover over “any crimes or errors” when writing about a great man.[3] What we fully approve of we certify and Foucault occasionally indulged in some ritualistic false modesty before delivering a lecture or when disparaging earlier work in favor of his present enterprises. all-too-human foibles of a man who was nevertheless a great thinker.

Miller suggests that Foucault. we should be grateful to Foucault for his pioneering exploration of hitherto forbidden forms of pleasure and Miller attempts to enroll in the ranks of virtue behavior and attitudes that until fifteen minutes ago were universally condemned as pathological. it outlines a portentous struggle between “the logic of domination” and the “will to gratification. was in fact a kind of visionary.” Again.” She then commends Miller “for dismissing cliché-ridden concepts about certain specific erotic practices. in his view. none was more influential than Herbert Marcuse’s Marxist-Freudian tract. both straight and gay. will renew. head of the department of foreign languages and literatures at MIT.” which holds that “what is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today” —Marcuse http://www. Among the many articulations of false freedom that sprouted in those years. It provided the occasion to experience relations of power as a source of delight. and for offering a clear and nonjudgmental (even supportive) analysis of the tools and techniques of what he considers a mutually consensual theater of cruelty.newcriterion. Isabelle de Courtivron. once the threat of AIDS has receded.The perversions of M. the kind of corporeal experimentation that formed an integral part of his own philosophical quest. even now— and even for the most educated minds— from the afterwash of the radicalism of the 1960s.” and fulminates against “the repressive order of procreative sexuality. Eagerly embraced by countercultural enthusiasts who wanted to believe that heating up their sex lives would hasten the demise of capitalism and bring forth the millennium. Make no mistake: behind Professor de Courtivron’s anodyne commendation of a “nonjudgmental” approach to human sexuality and Miller’s dream of “corporeal experimentation” that proceeds “without shame or fear” stands the vision of polymorphous emancipation that helped turn the 1960s into the moral and political debacle it was. it demonstrates the kind of spiritual and intellectual wreckage that can result. assures readers in a front-page review for The New York Times Book Review that Foucault “expanded modern knowledge in profoundly important and original ways. and that in the future. perhaps. the prominent Nietzsche scholar Alexander Nehamas.” Very Foucauldian.” A great deal might be said about this effort to welcome sadomasochism as a bracing new “life-style” option. without shame or fear.” attacks “the established reality in the name of the pleasure principle. men and women. Foucault by Roger Kimball . As indeed is Marcuse’s splendid idea of “repressive tolerance. “in his radical approach to the body and its pleasures.The New Criterion 1/23/13 12:16 AM itself an indication of admirable ethical adventurousness. Many of his critics have cheerfully followed suit. in the course of his long and fulsome review of Miller’s book for The New Republic.” In other words.cfm/The-perversions-of-M--Foucault-4714 Page 4 of 15 . readily agrees that “sadomasochism was a kind of blessing in Foucault’s life. Above all. In his preface. For example. all that. Eros and Civilization (1966). “Foucault extended the limits of what could count as an admirable human life.” Consequently. Nehamas concludes. Indeed.

The forty-three-year-old professor of philosophy then got a chance to abandon himself to the intoxication. the student riots of 1968. as Miller suggests.” Miller reports proudly that while Foucault “gleefully” http://www. When the police arrived. tyranny is freedom. parked cars tipped over.” Foucault was one of the few faculty who joined the students. The mood was giddy. It is as if he were reliving his lost— or maybe not-so-lost—childhood. But his lover Daniel Defert was in Paris and kept him abreast of developments by holding a transistor radio up to the telephone receiver for hours on end. In fact. again. Hence it is not surprising that when Miller gets around to les événements. a group of five hundred students seized the administration building and amphitheater. the real point was “to explore. since he was teaching at the University of Tunis. Foucault by Roger Kimball . but “Democracy Is in the Streets” is a straightforward paean to the New Left and its “collective dream” of “participatory democracy. had to miss out on the first wave of riots. scaffolding and barbed wire pulled down. Foucault was named head of the department of philosophy at the newly created University of Vincennes outside Paris.” In that book. The disorder was intoxicating.cfm/The-perversions-of-M--Foucault-4714 Page 5 of 15 . In January 1969. and “Democracy Is in the Streets”: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (1987). in marches. With this in view.” In plain Orwellian language: Freedom is tyranny. Miller’s book and everywhere undergirds his sympathy for Foucault.” one participant wrote shortly afterward.newcriterion. I am unfamiliar with the former work. Miller was already memorializing crucial “breakaway experiences”—“during sit-ins.The New Criterion 1/23/13 12:16 AM holds that “what is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today” —Marcuse was writing in 1965 and had in mind such institutions as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly—“is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression. “Never had the passion for destruction been shown to be more creative. which he edited. the atmosphere festive. his prose waxes dithyrambic as gratified nostalgia fires his imagination. The Passion of Michel Foucault is a revival of that earlier book. Piles of debris mounted in the middle of the boulevards. unfortunately. at violent confrontations”—and the Sixties’ “spirit of ecstatic freedom.” Miller is very big on “the creative potential of disorder.” In some ways. “Everyone instantly recognized the reality of their desires. he followed the recalcitrant core to the roof in order to “resist. it seems only natural that among Miller’s other credits are The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. sign posts ostensibly to signal solidarity with their brave colleagues who had occupied the Sorbonne earlier that day.The perversions of M. The aroma of such Sixties radicalism pervades Mr.” Foucault himself. the creative potential of disorder. Later that year. summing up the prevailing spirit. done over with a French theme and plenty of black leather. Billboards were ripped apart.

The New Criterion 1/23/13 12:16 AM order to “resist. looking back to the postwar period. he never met a revolutionary piety he didn’t like.” Miller reports proudly that while Foucault “gleefully” hurled stones at the police. he supported the Ayatollah Khomeini.” Foucault posed as a passionate partisan of liberty.” “Both meanings. justice.” Although he came of age in the 1940s and 1950s. he was nonetheless “careful not to dirty his beautiful black velour suit. the “idealism” of the Sixties was painted a darker hue. leavened by an extraordinary obtuseness about the responsible exercise of power in everyday life. self-absorbed. His “politics” were consistently foolish. is that they tend to make otherwise outlandish figures appear comparatively tame. wracked by unfulfillable fantasies of absolute ecstasy.” he speculated.” Foucault replied that such ideas as responsibility. cynical argot of contemporary French philosophy. “The proletariat doesn’t wage war against the ruling class because it considers such a war to be just. the “public” Foucault was fundamentally a child of the Sixties: precocious. He became expert at straining the narcissistic delusions of the Sixties through the forbidding. remained very much in force. spoiled. In a debate that aired on Dutch television in the early Seventies. sex. full of jejune political sentiments. As Miller reports it.newcriterion.” power. while Chomsky insisted “we must act as sensitive and responsible human beings. In Foucault’s philosophy.” as Miller repeatedly puts it. sensitivity. that he owes his enormous success as an academic guru.The perversions of M.cfm/The-perversions-of-M--Foucault-4714 Page 6 of 15 . including Maoism. and surveillance. “The proletariat makes war with the ruling class because … it wants to take power. for example. Foucault was dazzled by the thought that the word “subject” (as in “the subject who is reading this”) is cognate with “subjection. he asked: “What could politics mean when it was a question of choosing between Stalin’s USSR and Truman’s America?” It tells us a great deal that Foucault found this question difficult to answer.” It was shortly after this encouraging episode that Foucault shaved his skull and emerged as a ubiquitous countercultural spokesman. however.” he argued. And it is primarily to this. He championed various extreme forms of Marxism. In 1978. the famous American radical and linguist Noam Chomsky appears as a voice of sanity and moderation in comparison to Foucault. communes. At the same time. One thing that is refreshing about Foucault’s political follies. “suggest a form of power which subjugates or makes subject to. I But its demand for liberation from “every fixed form. If scientific http://www. a combination of solemn chatter about “transgression. and law were merely “tokens of ideology” that completely lacked legitimacy. In an interview from 1968. Foucault suggested that “the rough outline of a future society is supplied by the recent experiences with drugs. other forms of consciousness and other forms of individuality. even when the Ayatollah’s fundamentalist cadres set about murdering thousands of Iranian citizens. Foucault by Roger Kimball .

reverie. on eugenics”: all the important philosophical issues of our time. who described it in what were clearly his highest words of praise. were one aid that Foucault freely availed himself of in his search for “experiences. on incest. Mr. Foucault joined again in the orgies of torture. and an uninhibited exploration of sadomasochistic http://www.cfm/The-perversions-of-M--Foucault-4714 Page 7 of 15 . on hysteria. “The Will to Know. But he had never encountered anything so exorbitant as what San Francisco offered. on perversion. the stupefying. in fact.” He battened on hashish and marijuana in the Sixties.” “I now understand my sexuality. trembling with “the most exquisite agonies.” voluntarily effacing himself.newcriterion. Miller considers it crucial to the philosopher’s development. but it was not until 1975 that he had his first encounter with LSD. now nearing his fiftieth birthday. corporeal pain insensibly melt into pleasure through the alchemy of eroticism… . his proclivities in this matter cost him his relationship with the composer Jean Barraqué. If scientific socialism emerged from the utopias of the nineteenth century. Nineteen seventy-five was clearly Foucault’s annus mirabilis. and so apparently did Foucault. there were hundreds of pages “on masturbation.” Drugs. the most punishing of ascetic practices. “The only thing I can compare this experience to in my life. he explained. a wordless gesture. his fullest exploration of the subject comes in a chapter called.The New Criterion 1/23/13 12:16 AM other forms of consciousness and other forms of individuality. In any event. “is sex with a stranger… .com/articles. Foucault had “experimented” with S&M before —indeed.” he is reported to have said at the time. It marked not only his introduction to the pleasures of LSD. found it “a place of dumbfounding excess that left him happily speechless. Contact with a strange body affords an experience of the truth similar to what I am experiencing now. after the title of one of Foucault’s books. In light of Foucault’s fate. the ecstatic. Through intoxication. it is possible that a real socialization will emerge in the 20th century from experiences. According to Miller.The perversions of M. Foucault by Roger Kimball .’ embracing ‘a pure violence.” “Accepting the new level of risk.” Miller writes. so galvanizing was Foucault’s first experience with hallucinogens that he set aside drafts of the unpublished volumes of The History of Sexuality—what a loss! As Miller notes. the philosopher. the Dionysian abandon of the artist. letting real. the unspeakable.” he concluded. Thus while sadomasochism is a topic that Miller discusses early and often.” The city’s countless homosexual bathhouses.’” As always. exploding the limits of consciousness. Miller presents Foucault’s indulgence in sexual torture as if it were a noble existential battle for greater wisdom and political liberation. it seems grimly significant that this pharmacological fête took place in Death Valley. but also his first visit to California’s Bay Area and introduction to San Francisco’s burgeoning sadomasochistic subculture. the creepy. allowed Foucault to grapple with his “lifelong fascination with ‘the overwhelming.

Miller is a careful and diligent scholar. But just mention the word “transcendence” and he goes all gooey. piercing.’” Foucault threw himself into this scene with an enthusiasm that astonished his friends. life and death—thus starkly revealing how distinctions central to the play of true and false are pliable. “I have relied on Larry Townshend. Miller appears as a sober investigative journalist.cfm/The-perversions-of-M--Foucault-4714 Page 8 of 15 . Miller’s discussion of sadomasochism is certainly grotesque. it is also comical at times. Much of the time. hoods.” he dutifully reports. however. “one could savor the illusion of bondage—or experience the most directly physical sorts of self-chosen ‘tor. so Miller can’t help spouting nonsense whenever anyone mentions Dionysus. acquired from too much Alan Watts and other quasi-mystical confections. reason and unreason. In his compendious notes. Addicted to countercultural platitudes about sexual liberation and psychic emancipation. he also feels constrained to present the practice of sexual torture as http://www. he can’t understand why “S/M is still one of the most widely stigmatized of sexual practices. Miller’s whole depiction of sadomasochism is a maze of contradictions. On the other hand. contingent. and an uninhibited exploration of sadomasochistic eroticism. Miller is nevertheless gruesomely particular in his descriptions of the sadomasochistic underworld that Foucault frequented. “For the techniques of gay S/M in these years. electric-shocking. and so he feels obliged to supply readers with a full list of sources. he informs us that his discussion is based on such works as “The Catacombs: A Temple of the Butthole. it seemed possible to breach. cutting. Foucault by Roger Kimball . quickly acquiring an array of leather clothes and. pleasure and pain—and. however briefly. he is desperate to de-toxify the subject.” It’s the deadpan delivery that does it.” he explains. gags. veering wildly between the worst sort of pop psycho-babble and pompous “philosophical” sermonizing. handcuffs. the boundaries separating the conscious and unconscious.” “Depending on the club. “for play.ture. Unintended comedy aside. to make the perversion seem “generally benign” and normal. after all these years! On the one hand. among other attractions.” Still. whips. branding… . imprisoning. Despite everything.” a variety of clamps.” Mr. I suspect it’s a reflex. stretching on racks. and The New Leatherman’s Workbook: A Photo Illustrated Guide to SM Sex Devices.The New Criterion 1/23/13 12:16 AM punishing of ascetic practices. at the ultimate limit. to help overcome the stigma. paddles. The Leatherman’s Handbook 11. Just as Pavlov’s dog could not help salivating when he heard the bell ring.The perversions of and other “sex toys. a world that featured. “gagging. Noting sadly that we may “never know” exactly what Foucault did while exploding the limits of consciousness and effacing the boundaries between pleasure and pain.” Urban Aboriginals: A Celebration of Leathersexuality. uncertain.

” But even as he is telling us about the the pillows he found in an S&M “dungeon” to make it cozy. there is something quite wrong about that. the anonymity of the encounters formed a large part of their attraction: “You meet men [in the clubs] who are to you as you are to them: nothing but a body with which combinations and productions of pleasure are possible. But who believes that “bodily pleasure should always come from sexual pleasure”? Had a good meal lately? Enjoyed a walk in the sunshine? It is part of the relentless logic of sadomasochism that what begins as a single-minded cultivation of sexual pleasure for its own sake ends by extinguishing the capacity for enjoying pleasure altogether.The perversions of M.” Well yes. the question of “relationships” hardly enters. “on one level.” Foucault correctly observed. in your own past. he also quotes the expert who.” The unhappy irony is that this apostle of sex and hedonism should have wound up.newcriterion.” Miller argues. and the idea that sexual pleasure is the root of all our possible pleasure—I think that’s something quite wrong. like the Marquis de Sade before him.” and “challenging. human relationships.” The whips and chains are really just “props”. He continued: “The idea that bodily pleasure should always come from sexual One of Miller’s frequent explanatory strategies involves a trip down the slippery slope. In one of the innumerable interviews that he gave in later years. for as Foucault himself stressed. “Complete total pleasure. though. Michel. the encounters are “consensual”. You cease to be imprisoned in your own face. Furthermore. When was the last time you had a violent impulse? Well. “exploratory.The New Criterion 1/23/13 12:16 AM something brave.” Only a small amount. perhaps all. exiling pleasure from sex. the pain is “often mild”. is “related to death. while insisting that “the real trip is mental. the devotees of S&M are. Indeed. which has as one of its main features what I call the desexualization of pleasure. “S/M on one level merely makes explicit the sadistic and masochistic fantasies implicitly at play in most. in your own identity. then: aren’t we all closet sadists? “After all. “on the whole.cfm/The-perversions-of-M--Foucault-4714 Page 9 of 15 . the difference between “implicit” and “explicit” is exactly the difference upon which the entire world of moral behavior is based.” freely acknowledges that “there is certainly pain and sometimes a small amount of blood.” Ah yes. it might be said that the pursuit of ever more extreme sensations of http://www.” Even Miller recognizes—though he doesn’t come right out and say it— that at the center of Foucault’s sexual obsessions was not the longing for philosophical insight but the longing for oblivion. Foucault praised sadomasochism as “a creative enterprise.” It never seems to occur to Miller that. … as nonviolent and welladjusted as any other segment of the population.” What is pathetically revealing is Foucault’s belief that this was an argument for sadomasochism. even if it were true that such fantasies were “implicitly” at play in most human relationships (itself a dubious proposition). Foucault by Roger Kimball .

He is all for allowing those who “think differently” to engage in “potential suicidal acts of passion” with consenting partners.” that truth is always and everywhere a function of power. Did Foucault know he had the disease? Miller engages in a fair amount of hand-wringing over this question. though.The New Criterion 1/23/13 12:16 AM it might be said that the pursuit of ever more extreme sensations of pleasure. in any” i. of “multiple forms of constraint. “When he went to San Francisco for the last time. Miller waffles.newcriterion. The desire for oblivion ends up in the oblivion of desire. Consider the central Foucauldian contention that objective truth is a “chimera.” This puts Miller in a tough position.cfm/The-perversions-of-M--Foucault-4714 Page 10 of 15 . “It is not immoral to be convulsed by singular fantasies and wild impulses. drains the pleasure out of pleasure. and ideological secrets that infect bourgeois society and that fester unacknowledged in the hearts and minds of everyone. what Foucault himself thought. summarizing the “ethical” point of Foucault’s book Madness and Civilization: “such limit-experiences are to be valued as a way of winning back access to the occluded. Dionysian dimension of being human. He begins by saying no. dark motives. “The Faustian pact. then one plunges directly into contradiction—for haven’t we just dispensed with this naïve idea of truth?—and the logical cornerstone of Foucault’s epistemology crumbles. who thought his friend “had a real knowledge” that he had AIDS. it is true. Foucault probably didn’t know. Sex is worth dying for. Foucault by Roger Kimball . to politics? If one says: Yes. he took it as a limit-experience. is now as follows: to exchange life in its entirety for sex itself. for the truth and the sovereignty of sex.” Some version of this claim is propagated as gospel by academics across the country. Foucault’s sexual adventures in the early 1980s also inevitably raise the question of AIDS.e.. But wait: is it true? Is it in fact the case that truth is always relative to a “regime of truth. He thinks that “limit experiences” are by definition a good thing. As he put it in Volume 1 of The History of Sexuality. which stands at the heart of the sadomasochistic enterprise. was the very epitome of the lonely but http://www. ruthlessly laying bare the hidden power relations. He is supposed to have been a supreme intellectual anatomist. It is not so much argued as taken for granted that Foucault. But he also quotes Daniel Defert. Or consider the proposition that Michel Foucault is a kind of latter-day avatar of Friedrich Nietzsche. that Foucault’s acolytes bring so little suspicion to the master’s own claims. like Nietzsche. whose temptation has been instilled in us by the deployment of sexuality.” But what if pursuing the limit involves infecting other people with a deadly disease? What if the pursuit of some “limit experiences” implicates one in what amounts to homicidal behavior? In the end. It is curious. But homicidal acts? It is pretty clear.” Foucault is admired above all for practicing an exemplary suspicion about the topics he investigated.” he writes.The perversions of M.

This is not to say that he concealed his contempt for narrow. bourgeois scruples. that Foucault was an accomplished academic politician. His work was almost totally ignored: Beyond Good and Evil. But whatever one thinks of Nietzsche’s philosophy and influence. was the very epitome of the lonely but profound philosophical hero. he gave an assistanceship The jobs were low-paying. thinking thoughts too deep—and too dangerous— for most of us. for example.cfm/The-perversions-of-M--Foucault-4714 Page 11 of 15 . adept at securing preferment for himself and his friends. and Tunisia. the comparison between Foucault and Nietzsche is a calumny upon Nietzsche. (Except of course for Foucault’s followers: for them it is the work of a moment to dispense with “Western metaphysics. however.” “bourgeois humanism. ‘to become what one is. Miller has elevated the comparison into a central interpretive principle. impoverished. when he was a lowly instructor at the University of Uppsala. Poland. the Sorbonne —he held a series of academic appointments in France. it is difficult not to admire his courage and singleminded commitment to the philosophical life.The perversions of M.’” Never mind that thirty pages later we find Foucault insisting that “One writes to become someone other than who one is”: the Foucault industry thrives on such “paradoxes.) Foucault himself assiduously promoted the idea that he was a modern-day Friedrich Nietzsche. the Ecole Normale Supérieure. He had but few friends. Yet he quietly persevered. And Foucault? After attending the most elite French schools—the lycée Henri IV. Wracked by ill-health— migraines. From then on he led an isolated. he acquired what Didier Eribon calls “a magnificent beige Jaguar” (it is white in Miller’s book) and proceeded to drive “like a madman” around town. In his preface.newcriterion. Germany. shocking staid Uppsalian society. Sweden. sold a total of 114 copies in a year.” something we find Foucault pursuing in Miller’s book every fifty pages or so? In fact. like Nietzsche. too. Talk about challenging convention! Eribon reminds us. While he was teaching at Clermont-Ferrand in the early 1960s. one of his most important books. and Mr. who has time for such niceties as logic when engaged on a risky “Nietzschean quest.” Anyway. subsisting in various cheap pensioni in Italy and Switzerland. vertigo. but the budding philosopher was aided in his program of resistance by generous subsidies from his parents. including the popularity of figures like Foucault. celibate life. Foucault by Roger Kimball . severe digestive complaints—Nietzsche had to quit his teaching position at the University of Basel when he was in his mid-thirties.” and a thousand other evils. Nietzsche has a lot to answer for. he announces that his book is not so much a biography as an account “of one man’s lifelong struggle to honor Nietzsche’s gnomic injunction. In the 1950s. Admittedly.The New Criterion 1/23/13 12:16 AM that Foucault. Attempting suicide and hurling stones at the police were hardly his only efforts to “transgress” accepted academic protocol.

no matter how much they eat.” But such local criticisms do not go nearly far enough. but few men have struggled as honestly with the problem of nihilism as he. Basically.’” Ah yes. like most academics who write about Foucault. convulsions.cfm/The-perversions-of-M--Foucault-4714 Page 12 of 15 .” especially extreme or “limit” experience. Foucault was Nietzsche’s ape. disjointed. ever more thrilling “experiences” was a sign of weakness. Foucault was addicted to extremity. a woman who was older and better qualified. a type that Nietzsche warned against when he spoke of “those who suffer from the impoverishment of life and seek rest. Miller.The New Criterion 1/23/13 12:16 AM to his lover. Here. not daring. 1971).com/articles.” Miller writes about Foucault’s reputation at the time of his death. Foucault simply flirted with nihilism as one more “experience. too.” Foucault’s insatiable craving for new. for example.” Mr. He adopted some of Nietzsche’s rhetoric about power and imitated some of his verbal histrionics.” About The Order of Things. he replied: “Because we don’t like old maids here. He epitomized to perfection a certain type of decadent Romantic. in Foucault’s life and work. Daniel Defert. His book Les Mots et les choses (The Order of Things in English) became a best-seller in 1966. anaesthesia. what resistance to bourgeois society! But Foucault differed from Nietzsche in more than such outward trappings. he is wrong to think that this was a virtue. calm seas.” Moreover. Miller is not entirely uncritical. “For more than a decade.” Miller is right to emphasize the importance of “experience. Nietzsche is a far better guide than Foucault. Foucault enjoyed the esteem of gullible intellectuals everywhere. Foucault by Roger Kimball . stillness. Nietzsche may have been seriously wrong in his understanding of modernity: he may have mistaken one part of the story—the rise of secularism—for the whole tale. The crowning recognition came in 1970 when. “his elegant shaved skull had been an emblem of political courage—a cynosure of resistance to institutions that would smother the free spirit and stifle the ‘right to be different. Foucault was elected to the Collège de France. About Madness and Civilization (English translation. or intoxication. redemption from themselves through art and knowledge. ‘I have not lived through anything’—is an ass. The fundamental world outlooks of the two men were radically different.newcriterion. he acknowledges that “the author’s own convictions are insinuated more than argued. and madness. elliptical to a fault. In response to a faculty-council query about why he had appointed Defert rather than another applicant. he points out that the writing is “awkward.— Whoever says now. at the unusually young age of forty-four. “All men now live through too much and think through too little. At the http://www.” Nietzsche wrote in 1880. But he never achieved anything like Nietzsche’s insight or originality. the very pinnacle of French academic culture. and therefore become thinner and thinner.The perversions of M. catapulting him to international fame. praises Foucault’s philosophical daring and willingness to put himself at risk for his ideas. “They suffer at the same time from extreme hunger and from colic.

com/articles. Foucault once described his writing as a “labyrinth. 2. 1.” He was right. 491 pages. Foucault by Roger Kimball . by Betsy Wing. Go back to the text. it sharply narrows the space for open debate by requiring allegiance to values or ideas one had hitherto had the luxury of acknowledging without affirmation. by the way—the widespread belief that tolerance must now be considered a symptom of reaction—is one of the most insidious by-products of the campaign for political correctness. its “conceptual muddles and explanatory weaknesses … more than outweigh its real contribution. and untenable generalizations.The perversions of M.” Yes. Michel Foucault. by James Miller. as Miller insists. if extensive. The Passion of Michel Foucault. Didier Eribon’s biography. was published in France in 1989.newcriterion. Foucault specialized in providing obfuscating answers to pseudo problems. Foucault’s writing expresses “a powerful desire to realize a certain form of life. Go back to the text. distorted history. “We have had sexuality since the eighteenth century.The New Criterion 1/23/13 12:16 AM fault. 3. and “Sexual intercourse was invented in 1963. Foucault (1985).” The truth is.” he writes in The History of Sexuality. At the beginning of his book. http://www. Simon & Schuster. Notes Go to the top of the document. Miller mentions in passing J. why should we wish to enter it? It may be the case that.” But is it a desirable form of life? Foucault’s personal perversions involved him in private tragedy. The celebration of his intellectual perversions by academics continues to be a public scandal. Go back to the text. Merquior’s incisive critical study. The question is. scholarship. $27. See Richard Vine’s review in the The New Criterion for January 1992. The career of this “representative man” of the twentieth century really represents one of the biggest con jobs in recent intellectual history. who is identified as “a Brazilian diplomat who studied with Ernest Gellner. Readers acquainted with that book know that Merquior.” as Philip Larkin memorably put it. and sex since the nineteenth. He then proceeds to show that his arguments rest on shoddy.” has politely but definitively exploded almost every significant claim that Foucault made.50. Among other things. The eclipse of tolerance as a liberal virtue.cfm/The-perversions-of-M--Foucault-4714 Page 13 of 15 .” But such local criticisms do not go nearly far enough. An English translation. Merquior concludes. “What we had before that was no doubt flesh. Merquior typically begins each chapter with a ritual nod to Foucault’s brilliance. G. Whatever “new perspectives” Foucault’s work may have opened up. appeared from Harvard in 1991.

but he 'occluded' this kind of enlightenment option. forthcoming from St.newcriterion. Likewise the comments on desire. http://www. The one thing you can't accuse Foucault of. Augustine's Press. In fact. His latest book is The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia.cfm/The-perversions-of-M--Foucault-4714 RATE THIS ARTICLE FOR YOUR USER PROFILE Incr Decr Reset Make PDF Link Print email Share 2 comments josh Jun 03. the denunciation of the mindless celebration of sex (perhaps ultimately more a product of unrestrained liberalism than anything else) is apposite. 2012 12:03 AM #2 I liked this article.cfm/The-perversions-of-M--Foucault-4714 Page 14 of 15 . there is no serious engagement with philosophy here at all.505 followers Burke was right! Support The New Criterion MORE FROM THIS AUTHOR This article originally appeared in The New Criterion. even though I think it succeeds only in dissembling Miller.The perversions of "Foucault’s personal perversions involved him in private tragedy". Would you care to state specifically which particular "perversions" you are referring to (homosexuality? sadomasochism? both?) and what "private tragedy" you are referring to? ADD A COMMENT Sign in Name: Email: Website: Verification: http:// COMMENT POST A COMMENT http://www. on page 10 Copyright © 2013 The New Criterion | www. Nonetheless. 2012 11:01 AM #1 You say.newcriterion. I still think Foucault may have got more incite into his sexuality from Freud than New Criterion 1/23/13 12:16 AM Roger Kimball is Editor and Publisher of The New Criterion and President and Publisher of Encounter Books. is bad prose! memory Feb 18. Follow @rogerkimball 2. Foucault by Roger Kimball . Volume 11 March 1993. only sarcastic reflections on ignorant caricatures of French though. not Foucault.newcriterion.

Foucault by Roger Kimball .The New Criterion 1/23/13 12:16 AM Copyright © 1982-2013 Powered by Ecomsolutions.newcriterion.The perversions of Page 15 of 15 .

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